Is conservation too cute?

Awwwww. Image by George Lu. Used under a CC BY 2.0 license.

Recently, a colleague sent me a link to a campaign by BirdLife to save the Spoon-billed sandpiper. The campaign uses the hashtag #SaveSpoonie and there are pictures of cute, fluffy chicks. Whilst I aww-ed at the pictures I also couldn’t help but wonder, are cute animals being saved at the expense of less cuddly, fluffy animals? Is conservation too cute?

An article in Biodiversity argues it is. In the abstract for the paper the author, Ernest Small, summarises his argument thus: Aesthetic and commercial standards have become the primary determinant of which species in the natural world deserve conservation. Accordingly, the world’s biodiversity is being beautified by selective conservation of attractive species, while the plight of the overwhelming majority of species is receiving limited attention.

The reasons behind this are varied and complex, but one reason is that most humans are: (1) … indifferent to almost all of the species on the planet: (2) ‘biophobic’ … and (3) extremely positive towards certain species that are valuable or simply have characteristics valued by the human psyche.

Why does this matter? During the 3.5 billion years of life on Earth there have been five episodes of ‘mass extinction’ and it is believed that the current rate of human-induced extinction is of the same magnitude. What’s more, most species do not survive these periods of mass extinction, so us humans could well be on the road to extinction ourselves. Clearly conserving the planet’s biodiversity is an important issue. Small refers to it as one of the most important existential issues of modern times. Yet, the world’s richest countries only allocate a tiny percentage of funding to environmental issues.

Democratic governments reflect the priorities of the public, and accordingly the most pressing need for addressing the world’s declining biodiversity is to persuade the public that the issue deserves a higher priority.

So, how do we (conservation  organisations, environmental NGOs, researchers, concerned individuals etc) do that? Small describes two sets of values that have been used to shape PR and fundraising campaigns: rational, economic considerations based on utility … and relatively subjective satisfaction based on human values, prejudices, instincts, or sensations. This first set of objective values includes the role of ecosystems as a source of materials, such as food and medicine, and ecosystem services, such as pollination and protection from erosion. However, although economic arguments are important, since the goal of campaigning is to raise money, at least as important is: the emotional attachment people have for certain species that have characteristics that appeal to the heart, not the head.

George Monbiot makes a similar point in an article for The Guardian:

I have asked meetings of green-minded people to raise their hands if they became defenders of nature because they were worried about the state of their bank accounts. Never has one hand appeared. Yet I see the same people base their appeal to others on the argument that they will lose money if we don’t protect the natural world.

Such claims are factual, but they are also dishonest: we pretend that this is what animates us, when in most cases it does not. The reality is that we care because we love. Nature appealed to our hearts, when we were children, long before it appealed to our heads, let alone our pockets. Yet we seem to believe we can persuade people to change their lives through the cold, mechanical power of reason, supported by statistics.

And yet, if what Small argues is true, most of us are either indifferent to most species on the planet or biophobic: slightly to extremely negative towards the majority of species we encounter.

I spend a lot of time writing about nature and I work for an environmental NGO, yet I’m willing to admit I’m not always a friend to the house spider, or the pantry moth, or the pigeons on my balcony. So what exactly is it that appeals to our hearts? What animates us? According to Small, we are animated by charismatic species: whales, lions, tigers, pandas, monkeys, and penguins, to name a few.

I wonder though, how our personal experiences and perception of the natural world feed into which species we consider charismatic. I’ve written elsewhere about my encounter with the wild horses of the Oostvaardersplassen. Now, I realise horses are fairly charismatic  animals – think scenes of wild horses galloping across a plain – but most of my experiences with horses up until my visit to the Oostvaardersplassen had involved one lonely horse (probably wearing a blanket), stood in the corner of rain-sodden field. My experience at the Oostvaardersplassen completely transformed my opinion of horses – or rather, those wild horses did something to my heart. As a result I’d probably be far more likely to act (or give money) on behalf of those and other wild horses.

Or, there’s the time I watched a greylag goose through my binoculars – the image of it’s eye is still burned into my brain. That encounter is part of the rich world I discovered in the wetlands of Attenborough Nature Reserve, which in turn inspired me to want to work for an organisation that protects wetlands.

Recently the organisation I work for took part in a Valentine’s Day campaign to raise awareness of and money for ugly and forgotten species. There were six Valentine’s Day cards, each showing a different ugly animal and each affiliated with a different nature conservation organisation. Our ugly animal was the Greater Adjutant – a balding stork with a skin pouch hanging from its neck. It’s seriously ugly. Did people buy those cards out of love or pity? And does it matter when the fate of humanity is at stake?

Well, yes, it might matter. It matters when scientists and conservationists cannot agree on a solution to ‘the Noah’s Ark problem’ – the question of which species to conserve. It matters when [t]he several dozen wild species that naturally dominate public attention … are to a considerable extent the same ones that attract many scientists. It matters when those same species tend to live in the developed world, yet more species: inhabit the tropics and are both poorly known and uncharismatic.

Small considers whether the concept of triage might offer a way to decide which species should should be allowed onto Noah’s Ark. Species triage borrows from the world of medicine where triage is used to decide which patients should get access to limit resources. Patients are grouped according to how severe their injuries are: those who are too injured to waste resources on, those with minor injuries and those in the middle, who receive treatment first.

Inherent in medical triage is recognition that scarce resources should not be wasted on those who are so severely injured that they are unlikely to recover.

However, Small argues that the analogy between the world of medicine and species conservation falls short:

[W]hen a medical patient cannot be saved, the issue is simply that technology is not available for the purpose. By contrast, technology is available to save virtually every species at risk.

I found this claim astonishing. I had previously heard and took as gospel that a species must maintain a ‘minimum viable population size’ in order to avoid extinction, and that below the threshold of 5000 adult individuals it has passed the point of no return. But researchers have questioned the validity of this concept: In other words, where there’s life there’s hope.

What if there’s room for everyone on the Ark? What is we just need a bigger boat or a less strict entry policy? What would that look like? There would be lions and tigers and bears (oh my!), but also the Purple Pig-nosed Frog, the Blobfish and the Bald Uakari . And there would be people too, lots of people. Not just those in the rich, western world – everyone would be welcome.

N.B. If you feel like giving to the save the Spoon-billed sandpiper campaign, a very worthy cause, you can do so here. For an interesting article about cuteness check out: The emerging field of cute studies can help us understand the dark side of adorableness. And for a fascinating podcast about medical triage have a listen to: Playing God.

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